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How Disability Discrimination Laws Protect Employees

Federal law prohibits disability discrimination in the workplace. Not all types of discrimination will violate federal and state laws. Some types of unequal treatment are legal. These cannot form the basis for a civil rights case alleging employment discrimination. So, it's critical to understand your rights in the workplace on discrimination.

Disability Discrimination

In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The purpose of the ADA is to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities in the workforce. The ADA also offers protections on the basis of disability in most businesses and other public accommodations. It requires "reasonable accommodations" for many types of disabilities.

Despite attempts to define many terms and provide specificity, the ADA leaves the exact contours of an employer's responsibilities and the extent of disabled employees' rights unclear. For instance, the following questions may come to mind:

  • When is an accommodation "reasonable?"
  • What is the definition of disability?
  • What qualifies a person as "disabled," entitling them to protection under the ADA?

The following discussion should help provide a general understanding of the law under the ADA.

When Does the ADA Apply?

The ADA applies to all employers with 15 or more employees for at least 20 weeks. Federal law says that covered employers cannot discriminate against otherwise qualified people with a disability in the following aspects of employment:

  • The application process
  • Hiring
  • Job offer
  • Training
  • Promotion
  • Pay and benefits
  • Discharge and termination
  • Any other condition of employment

Prohibited discrimination includes classifying disabled employees so their job opportunities are more limited than non-disabled employees. It also includes setting standards that make it harder for disabled employees to compete.

To inform employees of their rights under the ADA, employers must post a notice outlining the rights guaranteed by the ADA in the workplace. Employers covered by the nondiscrimination and EEO laws must post the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) "Know Your Rights" posters on the premises.

'Disability' Under the ADA

The ADA only applies to people who meet the definition of "disabled" under the law. A person is disabled and protected under the ADA if they have a disability or have a perceived disability. A person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits what the ADA calls a "major life activity" is also disabled.

Major life activities are the basic components of any person's life. These include the following:

  • Walking
  • Talking
  • Seeing
  • Learning

If an employee's impairment substantially limits their ability to perform one or more of these activities, they are disabled under the ADA.

Common Examples of Disabilities

The facts of each case determine whether a worker is disabled. Common examples of disabilities include the following:

  • Confinement to a wheelchair
  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • A learning disability
  • Certain kinds of mental disabilities

The ADA specifically mentions alcoholism and drug abuse. The ADA does not protect employees whose use of alcohol or drugs prevents them from performing their job duties. Neither are employees who use illegal drugs. But, an alcoholic who can perform their job duties despite their addiction is protected, as is a recovered alcohol or drug abuser.

Determining Whether a Person Is Disabled

In determining whether an employee is disabled, it helps to consider whether using corrective devices reduces or eliminates the limits on the employee's activities caused by the disability. Suppose an employee is hard of hearing but has normal hearing when wearing a hearing aid. In that case, this employee is not considered disabled with a physical disability under the ADA.

Finally, to be substantially limited by a disability, the disability must render the employee unable to work in a broad range of jobs. The ADA does not cover a disability that only affects the employee's ability to perform a few specific jobs.

For example, suppose a woman seeks a commercial pilot's license but is too nearsighted to perform essential functions of the job to qualify. In that case, she may not be disabled if her nearsightedness only disqualifies her from a job as a pilot. But, it does not limit her ability to perform various other jobs.

What Is 'Reasonable Accommodation'?

Assuming an employee is disabled under the ADA, an employer handles making "reasonable accommodations" for the employee's disability.

Such accommodations often include changes to the physical work environment to aid the disabled employee, i.e., installing ramps for an employee who uses a wheelchair. Other accommodations may include the following:

  • Restructuring the job or its duties to allow the disabled employee to perform the work
  • Allowing the employee to take extra unpaid leave due to medical conditions or to use vacation for medical leave
  • Moving the employee to a vacant position or a temporary light-duty position
  • Installing special equipment to help the employee perform their duties or assigning "non-essential" tasks of the employee's job, such as those that only occupy a few minutes a day, to another employee
  • Modifying the work schedule to accommodate the disability
  • Providing the employee with a qualified reader or interpreter

Generally speaking, a reasonable accommodation allows a disabled employee to perform a job like a non-disabled employee.

Exceptions to the 'Reasonable Accommodation' Rule

While the ADA applies to all disabled employees of qualified employers, it allows employers limited latitude in refusing to accommodate disabled people in the workplace. The employer may refuse to hire the applicant in certain situations. This might be the case if the practical aspects of a certain business are such that a job applicant with a particular disability could not perform the job even if the employer made reasonable accommodations.

An extreme example is a blind person applying for an airline pilot position. Airlines could make every reasonable accommodation to allow blind people to get around in airports and airplanes. The employer could even provide another employee to travel with the blind person to act as their "eyes." But even after all these accommodations, a blind person can't be a pilot.

A pilot must see. Sight is important to the pilot's ability to fly safely. Because sight is a job requirement for a pilot, the airline could make an employment decision refusing to hire an otherwise qualified blind applicant.

An employer may also refuse to accommodate a disabled person if the accommodation allowing them to perform the job is not "reasonable." The ADA recognizes that, even if accommodating a particular disability is theoretically possible, the expense or difficulty may render the accommodation impractical. If the employer can show that the necessary accommodation creates an undue hardship, the ADA does not force the employer to make the accommodation.

'Undue Hardship' Under the ADA

Determining when an accommodation is an "undue hardship" under the ADA depends on the following:

  • The nature of the disability
  • The steps required for accommodation
  • The employer's particular situation

Not surprisingly, because of the variety and complexity of factors involved, there are few hard-and-fast rules about what makes an accommodation and undue hardship.

Generally, accommodation becomes an undue hardship when the employer would face significant difficulty or a considerable expense to put it in place. Undue hardship is based on the following:

  • Financial costs
  • The practicality of the accommodation required
  • The employer's financial resources

What counts as undue hardship depends on the specific disability. It can vary from employer to employer. What is a reasonable accommodation for a large multinational corporation with thousands of employees might be unreasonable for a small, local company with limited resources.

Disability Discrimination Articles

Get Help With an ADA Employment Claim

Because the Americans with Disabilities Act is a relatively new law, an employer's responsibilities and a disabled person's rights are evolving.

If you believe someone has harassed you or violated your rights under the ADA — as a job applicant or current or former employee, contact an employment lawyer to discuss your options and protect your legal rights.

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